The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In issuing new dietary guidelines, Trump once again spurns science

(Kathleen Flynn/For the Washington Post)
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A GROUP of 20 doctors, nutritionists and public health experts from the country’s major academic centers was hired by the federal government to assist in the formulation of new dietary guidelines. This independent advisory committee, charged with offering science-based advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutritional needs and reduce the risk of disease, recommended limits in the consumption of sugar and alcohol. The Trump administration, however, responded as it often does when science is involved: It spurned the advice of the experts as it established policy that touches the lives of Americans.

The departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, which every five years updates the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released recommendations last week that stuck with the existing standards for sugar and alcohol. The scientific advisory committee had recommended Americans cut their consumption of both, citing — in the case of sugar — high rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers, and — in the case of alcohol — growing evidence that consuming higher amounts of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of death. The group’s recommendations — that sugar intake be limited to 6 percent of daily calories, instead of the current 10 percent, and that both men and women limit daily alcohol consumption to one drink a day — were rejected.

Although “the preponderance of evidence supports limiting intakes of added sugars and alcoholic beverages to promote health and prevent disease,” the report said, “the evidence reviewed since the 2015-2020 edition does not substantiate quantitative changes at this time.” Huh? Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition and food studies at New York University, told the New York Times she was “stunned.” Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, chair of the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, called it a “lost opportunity for a stronger public health message.”

The dietary guidelines, first issued in 1980, are no mere academic exercise. They have a tangible impact on the country’s eating habits, affecting federal food programs such as the National School Lunch Program, military rations and food stamps, and influencing decisions by food producers. No surprise, then, that manufacturers of sugary beverages hailed the unchanged guidelines.

That the guidelines were issued in the midst of the unprecedented health threat of the covid-19 pandemic — which has been particularly deadly for those with diet-related preexisting conditions such as obesity and diabetes — makes them all the more galling. We can hope only that President-elect Joe Biden is able to undo the damage that has been done by Mr. Trump and his science-averse administration.

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